Tom Reiss: On the Trail of Essad Bey

The Transformation Artist

Essad Bey was a German-speaking writer of Jewish-Russian origin, who converted to Islam in 1922 and later passed himself off as a Muslim prince in Nazi Germany. With "The Orientalist," Tom Reiss offers readers a fantastic biography. Sonja Hegasy introduces the book

Lev Nussimbaum alias Essad Bay (photo: H.J. Maurer)
Lev Nussimbaum alias Essad Bay alias Kurban Said as a young man

​​Tom Reiss' American bestseller, "The Orientalist – Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life," has just come out in German courtesy of the newly established Osburg Verlag publishing house. Wolf-Rüdiger Osburg, who hopes to create a consciousness for the "presence of history" by presenting the life paths of select individuals, has scored a beginner's coup with "The Orientalist."

The American Tom Reiss has written an exciting as well as meticulous biography of Lev Nussimbaum alias Essad Bey alias Kurban Said. "The Orientalist" has already appeared in 14 languages – and the search is still on for an Arab publisher.

Lev Nussimbaum was born in 1905 to a Jewish family in Baku, yet was forced to flee from the Russian Revolution. At the end of an escape route that took him to Iran, Turkey, and France, he eventually arrived in Berlin. Here, in 1922 at the age of 17, he converted to Islam at the Embassy of the Ottoman Empire. He enrolled at the Friedrich Wilhelms University, today the Berlin Humboldt University, in the Faculty of Oriental Languages.

Yearning for the cosmopolitan Caucasus

Essad Bey wrote during the golden twenties for the Literarische Welt alongside such renowned intellectuals as Walter Benjamin and Egon Erwin Kisch. His first article was a report on newspaper journalism in Malaysia and Azerbaijan. In 1930, he published his autobiography with the title "Oil and Blood in the Orient," which became a much-discussed bestseller.

He later wrote two novels under the pseudonym Kurban Said ("joyful sacrifice"). His tale of "Ali und Nino," a Christian-Muslim love story set in the Caucasus, became world famous (although only by the early 1970s).

The Caucasus, which Lev Nussimbaum yearned for his whole life long, can be seen in a photograph that Tom Reiss came across in 1998 while researching in Azerbaijan. It shows a Muslim-Jewish Christmas celebration in Baku in 1913 with young Lev in the middle – a photograph symbolizing the cosmopolitan way of life in the Caucasus.

A missing manuscript

​​The most important archives worldwide on the life and work of Lev Nussimbaum have, until recently, been in the private possession of Prof. Gerhard Höpp in Berlin and Tom Reiss in New York. In 1998, with the help of Höpp's research, Reiss found the last manuscript of Kurban Said called "The Man Who Knew Nothing About Love" in Vienna with his last publisher, Therese Mögle.

For almost 60 years, the leather-bound notebooks lay dormant in her cupboard, although Essad Bey had given them to her to be published shortly before his death.

Since 2003, the literary estate of Gerhard Höpp has found a home in the library of the Centre of Modern Oriental Studies (ZMO). As part of his research into the Muslim Diaspora in Germany during the first half of the 20th century, Höpp came across the name of Essad Bey quite early on.

With "Mohammed," his biography of the Prophet, Essad Bey stands in the tradition of Jewish scholars and enthusiasts of the Orient – a tradition that began in the early 19th century and to which Tom Reiss devotes a separate chapter. Like Benjamin Disraeli, Ignaz Goldziher, and the Islam convert Leo Weiss / Muhammed Asad, Nussimbaum points to the commonality of Arab-Jewish roots. Reiss quotes Bernard Lewis' remark about the "sentimental Semitism" of Disraeli, who spoke of Jews as "Mosaic Arabs."

Death and reprints

Poverty-stricken, Essad Bey died of Raynaud's disease in Positano, Italy in 1942. Since then, his work has constantly been rediscovered. In 2000, Ullstein-Verlag republished his "Ali and Nino." In 2002, Matthes und Seitz reissued "Allah is Great: The Decline and Rise of the Islamic World by Abdul Hamid bis Ibn Saud" with a biographical essay on Essad Bey by Gerhard Höpp.

In 2008, H.J. Maurer reprinted "Blood and Oil in the Orient" and "Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus." This year, a biography of Essad Bey by Nourida Ateshi will also be published in Azerbaijan. The book mentions the fact that the filmmaker Ralf Marschallek has secured the rights to Essad Bey's / Kurban Said's final manuscript. The original, however, is located in New York in the possession of Tom Reiss, who has since made a portion of the work publicly accessible on his webpage.

There are many interested parties who see the chance of making a lucrative deal with the rights to Essad Bey's works. This is something the library of the Centre of Modern Oriental Studies has repeatedly encountered. The question remains, who will get to film "Ali and Nino" or the exciting life of Essad Bey for Hollywood?

Sonja Hegasy

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Tom Reiss: Der Orientalist. Auf den Spuren von Essad Bey
German translation of The Orientalist – Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, Berlin: Osburg Verlag, 2008, 472 pp. with 26 illustrations, hardcover, € 25.90

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Comments for this article: The Transformation Artist

A good article, though it not quite renders the action and drama of the original book of Tom Reiss. His new book, by the way, is a biography of General Alexandre Dumas, the father of the famous novelist by the same name, who rose from slavery to become a leading general in Napoleon’s army -- the highest ranking black military figure in history until Colin Powell. I think these kind of stories have lessons for us today, too, in terms of stereotypes and real achievements.

Oliver Khan27.04.2011 | 23:54 Uhr

This story transgresses boundaries and one wonders why Hollywood has not yet been knocking... Too bad, the good man died all by himself and poor, too, in Italy. He deserved better.

Edson Shibli03.05.2011 | 21:54 Uhr

Reiss fools his reader, claiming that he has written history and biography, and is laughing all the way to the bank.
He published in The New Yorker in 1999 and then returned to Baku to flesh out the story and when he found out parts that contradicted his earlier article, he ignored them. He was invited to go to the Baku Institute of Manuscripts where there is a very large collection of Yusif Vazir Chamanzaminli's works and he did not show up - even though the best researcher on the subject, who had delved into the problem for 30 years, was waiting for him at the door. Be Careful with this book - Reiss writes a good narrative, but he writes with an agenda and one should not confuse it with history or biography. Shame!

Sevinj Mehdizade04.06.2011 | 07:38 Uhr